A Literary History of Alice Munro

Like so many American readers, I was thrilled to hear the news that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize this week. I've been a fan of her short stories for decades, and back in 2006 I was lucky enough to spend about two months immersed in her work while I wrote this essay for The Virginia Quarterly Review: Some Stories Have to Be Told by Me: A Literary History of Alice Munro

Sometime in the late 1970s, Alice Munro made a policy of refusing prizes that didn’t specifically honor the quality of her fiction. When the Canadian government offered her one of its highest honors in 1983—an appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada, which would have entitled her to a pretty, gold-edged medal with the mottoDesiderantes meliorem patriam (“They desire a better country”) emblazoned around a gold maple leaf—Munro politely declined. She didn’t feel comfortable, she said, with awards that celebrated celebrity. Only awards that had been earned by particular books or by particular groups of books were okay. Munro was fifty-two by then, and several such awards had already been placed, like love letters, upon her books...

Read the full essay at the Virginia Quarterly Review

Unmanageable Realities: On César Aira

by Marcela Valdes The Nation. April 10, 2012.

Whether or not César Aira is Argentina’s greatest living writer, he’s certainly its most slippery. His novels, which number more than sixty, are famous for their brevity—few are longer than a hundred pages—and for their bizarre, unpredictable plots. In How I Became a Nun (2005) an innocent family outing climaxes with murder. The weapon? A vat of cyanide-laced strawberry ice cream. In The Literary Conference (2006) an attempt to clone the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes causes giant blue silkworms to attack a Venezuelan city, and in Aira’s latest book to appear in English, Varamo (2002), two spinsters get caught smuggling black-market golf clubs.

Aira loves to keep readers guessing—he once said that he deliberately writes the opposite of whatever fans praise—and several of his novels are actually works of probing psychological realism. But for all the variety of his novels’ plots, what has remained consistent during the thirty-odd years he has been writing is his taste for blending genres. Social realism and haunted-house tale mix with architectural theory in Ghosts (1990). Biography, pioneer tale and biogeography melt together in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000). The B-movie plot of The Literary Conference is peppered with asides on myth and translation.

Critics in the United States have typically tried to account for Aira’s oddball complexity by classifying him as a Dadaist or a Surrealist. In this they have followed the lead of Aira, who has praised Marcel Duchamp and declared that he might have been a painter if the job weren’t so tricky (“the paint, the brushes, having to clean it all”). Yet Aira has also said that his books “come from the things I see, that I live,” and that “I’ve never liked surrealism for surrealism itself.” He has even gone so far as to criticize other contemporary Argentine writers for producing novels that are too “frivolous” and insufficiently concerned with Argentina’s “social and economic problems.”

Read more of this essay at The Nation.

Seed Projects: The Fiction of Alejandro Zambra

by Marcela Valdes The Nation. June 17, 2009.

When it was published in Spanish in 2006, Alejandro Zambra's novel Bonsai filled just ninety-four generously spaced pages, and its recent English translation by Carolina De Robertis stretches only to eighty-three. Still, each of these volumes should be considered a marvel of book design and production since in interviews the author has let slip that his original text ran only to forty sheets. Rather than shrink in its conversion to bound covers, as most manuscripts do, Zambra's text has swelled--and its effect on the world of Chilean literature has been entirely disproportionate to its size. As the venerable Santiago newspaper El Mercurio commented in April 2008, "The publication of Bonsai...marked a kind of bloodletting in Chilean literature. It was said (or argued) that it represented the end of an era, or the beginning of another, in the nation's letters."

Reading the book a continent away, I would never have predicted such a fuss, though Bonsai is a delightful work. A love story that's both wry and melancholy, the novel opens in 1980s Santiago, at a study session turned party, where textbooks give way to vodka and two university students fall casually into bed. "Julio didn't like that Emilia asked so many questions in class," Zambra writes, "and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort."

Such knowing, cynical observations save the love story of these twentysomethings from sentimentality, and Zambra keeps the zingers coming as he traces the development of Julio and Emilia's "conceited intimacy," which allows them to feel not only loved but also "better, purer than others." The relationship withers by page 35, at which point the novel--this little book has been insistently presented as a full-fledged novel in Spain and Latin America--turns poignant. The brief romance, brimming with heartfelt confessions and adolescent posturing, emerges as the one great love of Julio's dispirited life.

Read the rest of this essay on The Nation

Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolano's '2666'

by Marcela Valdes The Nation. November 19, 2008. Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.

The Part About the Author

Shortly before he died of liver failure in July 2003, Roberto Bolaño remarked that he would have preferred to be a detective rather than a writer. Bolaño was 50 years old at the time, and by then he was widely considered to be the most important Latin American novelist since Gabriel García Márquez. But when Mexican Playboy interviewed him, Bolaño was unequivocal. "I would have liked to be a homicide detective, much more than a writer," he told the magazine. "Of that I'm absolutely sure. A string of homicides. Someone who could go back alone, at night, to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts."

Detective stories, and provocative remarks, were always passions of Bolaño's--he once declared James Ellroy among the best living writers in English--but his interest in gumshoe tales went beyond matters of plot and style. In their essence, detective stories are investigations into the motives and mechanics of violence, and Bolaño--who moved to Mexico the year of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and was imprisoned during the 1973 military coup in his native Chile--was also obsessed with such matters. The great subject of his oeuvre is the relationship between art and infamy, craft and crime, the writer and the totalitarian state.

In fact, all of Bolaño's mature novels scrutinize how writers react to repressive regimes. Distant Star (1996) grapples with Chile's history of death squads and desaparecidos by conjuring up a poet turned serial killer. The Savage Detectives (1998) exalts a gang of young poets who joust against state-funded writers during the years of Mexico's dirty wars. Amulet (1999) revolves around a middle-aged poet who survives the government's 1968 invasion of the Autonomous University of Mexico by hiding in a bathroom. By Night in Chile (2000) depicts a literary salon where writers party in the same house in which dissidents are tortured. And Bolaño's final, posthumous novel, 2666, is also spun from ghastly news: the murder, since 1993, of more than 430 women and girls in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, particularly in Ciudad Juárez.

Read more of this essay at The Nation.

His Stupid Heart: Roberto Bolaño’s Novels Were a Love Letter to His Generation, But What He Had to Say Many Chileans Didn’t Want to Hear

by Marcela ValdesThe Virginia Quarterly Review. Winter 2008.


Any account of Roberto Bolaño’s life has to be divided into at least two stages: before the publication of The Savage Detectives in 1998, and after. Before there was rage, poverty, and obscurity. After, there was rage, security, and fame. In essays, lectures, and interviews, Bolaño’s friends often mention his kindness, his loyalty, his doting love for his two children. There’s no reason to doubt that their statements are true. In private, the man who is now widely recognized as the most influential Latin American novelist of the past three decades could have been a peaceful gentleman. But in public, in print, Bolaño preferred war. Before he died of liver failure in 2003, he told several interviewers, “My motto is not Et in Arcadia ego, but Et in Esparta ego.”

That creed may have come together during the years Bolaño worked as a garbage man, dishwasher, waiter, longshoreman, night watchman, reporter, grape picker, and seller of costume jewelry—all to support his habit of writing poetry. He was forty before he could ditch the odd jobs and live off his writing; forty-five when he won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize (AKA the Hispanic Booker) for The Savage Detectives. By then, he’d lost most of his teeth. “Bolaño lived through and for literature,” one of his best friends, Antoni García Porta, wrote. He read and wrote fanatically, and if he liked to toss bombs, his targets were usually literary.

Take for example, his 2002 essay, “On Literature, the National Prize in Literature, and the Strange Consolations of Service,” a napalm shower that burned many of Chile’s most prominent writers and included this backhanded compliment to the country’s bestselling author Isabel Allende:

"Made to choose between the frying pan and the fire, I choose Isabel Allende. Her glamour of South American in California, her imitations of García Márquez, her unquestionable boldness, her practice of a literature that goes from kitsch to pathetic and that somehow resembles, in a creole and politically correct fashion, the work of the author of Valley of the Dolls, winds up being, although it seems difficult, much superior to the literature of born functionaries like [Antonio] Skármeta and [Volodia] Teitelboim."

When it came to his countrymen, Bolaño was always especially generous with insults, but he didn’t restrict himself to slighting Chileans. He once dismissed Columbia’s Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez as “a man delighted to have met so many presidents and archbishops” and Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa as the same sort of sycophant “but smoother.”

Journalists abetted these proclamations, of course—nothing makes better copy than a fight—but Bolaño hardly needed egging on. He appears to have relished the idea of making enemies. A few days before “On Literature” was published, for example, Bolaño sent the text to his good friend, the Spanish literary critic Ignacio Echevarría, who would later edit Bolaño’s posthumous collection of essays, Between Parenthesis. Bolaño attached the following note: “Dear Ignacio: Restif de Bretonne on the barricades or how to keep making friends in Chile. The neo-pamphlet will be the great literary genre of the XXII century. In this sense, I’m a minor author, but advanced.” A few days later, he added: “The reactions, frankly, mean nothing to me.”

Combative, sarcastic, high-handed, Bolaño could sound obnoxious, and the public record of trash talk has naturally led many people to see him as a sort of chest-thumping provocateur. But Bolaño wasn’t just a Norman Mailer-esque showman. His hatred of born functionaries and of people pleased to have met archbishops fits logically into his obsession with evil’s relationship to art, a subject that appears in almost all of his fiction. “Literature,” Bolaño told the reporter Luis García in the 2001, “has always been close to ignominy, to vileness, to torture.” Nowhere is this connection more clear than in Bolaño’s two little novels about Chile—Distant Star and By Night in Chile—a pair of subtle, damning romans à clef that exposed a history of collusion among critics, poets, and the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Read the rest of this essay at The Virginia Quarterly Review

Rules of the Game: A fresh translation of a Portuguese classic offers a poignant portrait of a country's decline

by Marcela Valdes The Nation. December 3, 2007.

As a diplomat who served in England for fourteen years, from 1874 to 1888, the great Portuguese novelist José Maria de Eça de Queirós had no illusions about his country's position in the world during the mid- to late nineteenth century. The five novels that he published during his lifetime--The Crime of Father Amaro (1875), Cousin Bazilio (1878), The Mandarin (1880), The Relic (1887) and The Maias (1888)--satirized the faults of Portuguese society in order to save it. Yet he was well aware that the stratified Catholic society he dissected was already in its endgame.

Its apex had been reached a century earlier, under King João V, who had the good luck of ascending the throne in 1706, just seven years after Brazil began shipping gold to Lisbon. Midway through João V's reign, Brazil offered him another source of booty when diamonds were discovered in Bahía. By then, the tone of João V's rule was well established. He transformed the area around the capital with extravagant churches, palaces and convents. He fathered children with at least three nuns. He built the University Library at Coimbra, where Eça de Queirós would later study law. And shortly after he died in 1750, the country entered a long, precipitous fall.

The first drop came on November 1, 1755, when Lisbon was hit by the worst earthquake ever recorded in Europe. Like the 2004 quake in the Indian Ocean, the Lisbon quake was followed by an enormous tsunami, with waves that reached as far as the Caribbean Sea. As many as 60,000 Lisbon residents died in the ensuing fires, floods, famines and epidemics. In its time the disaster was notorious enough to inspire £100,000 in aid from Britain and a poem by Voltaire.

The next catastrophe marched in from France. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Portugal through Spain, sending the Portuguese royal family scampering to Rio de Janeiro. In their absence, Portugal's old ally England stepped in to its defense, launching the Peninsular War. Together Portuguese and British soldiers eventually drove Napoleon's army completely off the Iberian Peninsula, but the first three years of battle were fought mostly on Portuguese territory. (The rest were fought in Spain.) By the end of the war, in 1814, 100,000 Portuguese had died and much of their country had been laid waste.

The coup de grâce, however, was delivered by Portugal's own rulers. Having acquired a taste for the tropical luxuries of Brazil, the Braganza monarchy decided to stay in Rio. For fourteen years they ran Portugal like a colony of its colony, leaving Lisbon under the thumb of an autocratic British overseer, William Carr Beresford. In Lisbon, soldiers and intellectuals reacted to this neglect by assembling a Constitutional Cortes, or Parliament, which drafted Portugal's first Constitution. Needless to say, the nobles, the Queen and the Catholic Church were not pleased. But King João VI, who returned to Lisbon to settle the affair, accepted the new government with surprising equanimity--he had a liberal heart.

For a while, it seemed as if Portugal would transform itself into a constitutional monarchy without spilling any blood. Then the prince-regent, Pedro, declared Brazil an independent nation; João VI died; and Pedro's brother, Miguel, usurped the Portuguese throne. The nation plunged into a civil war. Liberal Pedro defeated reactionary Miguel in 1834, with the help of England, Spain and France. A few months later Pedro died, leaving the Portuguese Treasury near bankruptcy and the country irreparably behind England and France in terms of manufacturing, literacy, science and architecture.

By 1845, when Eça de Queirós was born, Portugal had turned into a B-list country. His most famous novel, The Maias--which has recently been given a vibrant new translation by the talented Margaret Jull Costa--reminds us of this situation from its outset. In 1858, it tells us, an ambassador from the Vatican wanted to rent a property in Lisbon called the Casa do Ramalhete. Though its garden was a mess--abandoned to weeds, with a dried-up waterfall, a choked pond and a marble statue of Aphrodite turning black--the monsignor liked the home's interior. The negotiations, however, went sour as soon as a number was named:

The rent proposed by old Vilaça, the Maias family's administrator, seemed to the Monsignor so extortionate that he asked, with a smile, if Vilaça thought the Church was still living in the age of Pope Leo X. Vilaça retorted that the Portuguese nobility were likewise no longer living in the age of King João V.

A Catholic ambassador and the manager of an aristocratic fortune squabbling over who's employer has fallen into worse decline? What a lovely way to begin a book!

Read more of this essay at The Nation.

Yukio Mishima and the Dream of the Holy Explosion

by Marcela ValdesThe Believer. February 2004.

DISCUSSED: The Shield Society Incident, Japanese Soft Porn, Guido Reni, Essays in Idleness, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, The Japanese Bureau of Fisheries, Eleventh-Century Genji Romances, Draft Dodging, Literary War Criminals, The Japan Romantic School, Post-Iron-Pumping Parties, “Yoko’s Story,” The February Rebellion, Emperor Hirohito, The “Werther Effect,” The Arab “Culture of Death,” The “Martyr of the Month” Calendar


Early in the afternoon of November 25, 1970, a forty-five-year-old writer named Yukio Mishima committed suicide in front of an audience of 800 members of the Japanese Army Self-Defense Force. That morning, Mishima had led four university students into the office of the Army’s commander, General Masuda, and these students had gagged the general, roped him to a chair, and barricaded all the entrances to his office. Using Masuda’s life as leverage, the group demanded that the entire Eastern Division of the Army, as well as all the members of their own militia (the Shield Society), be assembled in a plaza below the office’s balcony. When the SDF soldiers arrived, Mishima urged them to overthrow the current Japanese government, which, he said, had defiled Japan’s history by signing a postwar constitution that deprived the Emperor of a real fighting army. “Grinding our teeth we had to watch Japanese profaning Japan’s history and traditions,” he told them. “Rise with us and, for righteousness and honor, die with us. We will restore Japan to her true form, and in the restoration, die…”

When his speech ended, Mishima stepped back into the office, removed the jacket of his uniform, plunged a sword into the left side of his abdomen, cut open his stomach, and gave the signal for his followers to decapitate him. It took three blows to separate the head from the body. Once it was done, one of the students, Masakatsu Morita, sat down next to Mishima’s corpse and repeated his actions: again the belly-cutting, again the decapitation. Mishima had ordered the other three students to remain alive. They set the two severed heads on the floor, bowed to them, untied their hostage, and began to weep. “Cry it all out,” Masuda urged them, as if they were small children waking up, alone and frightened, from the darkness of a nightmare.

Dramatic, violent, public, the Shield Society Incident would have captured headlines no matter who its perpetrators were. In fact, Yukio Mishima (né Kimitake Hiraoka) was already known internationally not only as a novelist and playwright, but also as a provocateur, a homosexual, a narcissistic bodybuilder, a boastful masochist, and a friend of the West. His very presence, it has been said, “transmitted a palpable energy of brilliance and wit and even playfulness.” By the time he sliced open his stomach, he had completed forty novels, twenty volumes of short stories, eighteen plays, and hundreds of essays. Fifteen of his novels were made into movies. All of his plays were staged. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times. Yet, in the suicide note he left behind for his family, Mishima instructed his father not to commemorate any of these accomplishments after his death. “I have thrown the pen away,” he wrote. “Since I die not as a literary man but entirely as a military man I would like the character for sword—bu—to be included in my [posthumous] Buddhist name. The character for pen—bun—need not appear.”

Find the rest of this essay at The Believer.